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Mallory Swanson Nudges The USWNT Back On Track

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 18: Mallory Swanson of USA celebrates after scoring a goal during the International friendly fixture match between the New Zealand Football Ferns and the United States at Sky Stadium on January 18, 2023 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The USWNT rounded the corner from 2022 into the World Cup year of 2023 on the heels of three anxiety-inducing losses and facing a few tricky structural questions, like how to introduce more variety and spice into the attack, who to pair at the center back spots when the World Cup kicks off, and how best to knit the remnants of the 2019 World Cup-winning squad together with the program's exciting batch of up-and-coming players. The team is down in New Zealand getting familiar with this summer's host country by playing a pair of friendlies against the Ferns. Coach Vlatko Andonovski is still a ways out from figuring out who to bring to the World Cup and who to start, though Tuesday's 4-0 win was an occasionally uneven, ultimately satisfying start to 2023.

And it was uneven and satisfying in that order, as the USWNT failed to score in the first half and mostly spent the 45 minutes watching Becky Sauerbrunn and Naomi Girma dinking the ball back and forth. New Zealand played a disciplined 4-4-2, never attacking well or often enough to leave any space to run into and challenging the USWNT to break them down in possession. They mostly did not. The team is still seeking replacements for Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis in defensive midfield, and Lindsey Horan and Taylor Kornieck's first half performance was spatially, uh, interesting. In their three losses to round out 2022, the USWNT looked like they were out of ideas or any sort of attacking verve, but most of all they looked slow. At their best, this team puts immense pressure on defenses by playing fast and making quick decisions on the ball, and the first half was alarmingly glacial. Andonovski just watched his team suffer a three-game losing streak and couldn't manage better than this?

Everything changed in the second half, as the USWNT's four substitutes ratcheted up the tempo and destroyed the Ferns. Andi Sullivan made the midfield way more normal and Trinity Rodman, who notched two assists, was confident in attacking the right flank. The star of the day was Mallory Swanson (née Pugh), who built on her strong, seven-goal 2022 by slamming in two nice goals against New Zealand. Swanson, correctly named Woman of the Match, showed off some slick movement and timing on her first goal by catching a Rodman assist perfectly, then doubled her tally by scoring a very different sort of goal off of a perfect Ashley Sanchez through ball.

The USWNT brought neither presumptive starter Sophia Smith nor talismanic old-timer Megan Rapinoe to New Zealand, and Catarina Macario is still recovering from a torn ACL, so Rodman and Swanson had a big opportunity to distinguish themselves among an outrageously crowded forward pool, and they showed out. That forward position is going to be even more stuffed thanks to the triumphant return of Lynn Williams, who returned after missing almost all of 2022 with a hamstring injury. Williams offers a different look at forward, and she put away a nice Rodman cross for the USWNT's fourth. (In her words: "I got my little butt up in the air and nogged it in.") Picking between all the options at forward is going to be so hard, but at least we know that Rose Lavelle will have to start, and she had the moment of the game with this little backheel to Alex Morgan.

Andonovski is probably going to keep experimenting and giving a bunch of players opportunities to impress, though as a fan of the team and someone who is nervous after watching the high standard of play at Euro 2022, I mostly would like to see the USWNT quell those worries by coming out hard and scoring in the first half.

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